Ammonia is commonly in use around our homes – but is it safe to use in the home?
At a Carlsberg brewery in Northampton in November 2016, one employee died and a total of 22 other people were taken to hospital including 11 staff, two police officers and nine firefighters. The cause was an ammonia gas explosion caused by faulty pipework in the building.
The 45-year old victim, David Chandler, died ‘almost instantly’ when the removal of a compressor unit went tragically wrong. Some staff said they would not have been doing the work if they knew the risks.
What is ammonia?
Ammonia (NH3) is a chemical that occurs naturally in humans and in the environment. It is essential for some biological processes and part of the nitrogen cycle, and is produced in soil from bacterial processes and the decomposition of organic matter, including animals, plants and animal waste.
Most ammonia produced is used in agriculture as fertilizer but it is also a refrigerant gas, used in water purification and in the manufacture of plastics, textiles, dyes and cleaning solutions.
Its properties may be useful in industry and farming, but industrial grade ammonia which is usually in concentrations of 25% or more, is highly corrosive and far too strong to safely use in the home.
- At room temperature, ammonia is a highly irritating, colourless gas with a pungent odour.
- In its pure form, it is known as anhydrous ammonia and is hygroscopic, which means it readily absorbs moisture.
- Ammonia has alkaline properties and is corrosive.
- Ammonia gas easily forms a clear liquid under pressure.
- Ammonia is usually transported in compressed liquid form.
- Containers of ammonia may explode when exposed to high heat, although ammonia is not highly flammable.
- Ammonia gas spreads along the ground, concentrating in low-lying areas with poor airflow.
- Ammonia interacts immediately upon contact with moisture. It will react to moisture on skin, eyes, nasal cavity, respiratory tract, lungs and mucous surfaces to form caustic ammonium hydroxide which leads to cellular destruction as cell proteins break down.
- Although its distinctive odour will usually alert the presence of ammonia, it causes olfactory fatigue which reduces awareness of prolonged exposure, even at low concentrations.
Where will I find ammonia in the home?
Household cleaning products – Ammonia is a component of some household cleaning products, including window cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner and surface cleaners.
Hair products – Some hair products contain ammonia including shampoos, conditioners and the chemical hair processes of perming, hair straightening, colouring and bleaching of the hair. Ammonia is used to open or swell the surface of hair to allow products to penetrate to the centre where they work. Once the outer layer of hair has been opened it doesn’t go back as smoothly which makes fine hair feel thicker. However, hair can become rough to touch, tangle, have no shine and eventually split and break. Some people are sensitive to the ammonia which may cause an itchy scalp, coughing or watery, red and itchy eyes. Cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy which may cause impaired liver function will result in an inability to process ammonia.
Refrigerators – Ammonia is frequently used as a refrigerant, particularly in household fridges. The evaporation of a liquid requires heat; liquid ammonia absorbs large quantities of heat when it vapourizes, without changing its temperature. A fridge that has not been cleaned with an ammonia-based cleaner, but clearly smells of ammonia, is probably in need of urgent repair.
Household ammonia is usually a solution of 5-10% ammonia to water. It is cheap to buy, but it is essential that you take a few precautions before using it.
- NEVER allow ammonia to come into contact with bleach or other household cleaners, which will produce toxic fumes that can be deadly. Make sure any surfaces that will come into contact with ammonia are free of other products. Ammonia mainly consists of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. Bleach is made from water, caustic soda and chlorine.
- The only safe way to use ammonia is to dilute it with water.
- Ammonia should be kept well away from children, who have a smaller lung capacity and breathe air closer to the ground, so will receive a higher dose than an adult.
So, why would you want to use ammonia in your home?
Cleaning oven racks – Mix half a cup of household ammonia with a bowl of warm water. Soak oven racks for about twenty minutes then wipe clean, rinsing several times with plain water to remove all traces of ammonia.
Cleaning windows – Streaky windows can be cleaned with a 1/3 ammonia and water mix.
Shining Crystal – Mixed with a couple of cups of water, a few drops of ammonia applied with a soft cloth will give a good shine.
Bad smells – A cup of household ammonia will eliminate most strong smells, including garlic, onion and other kitchen odours, as well as new paintwork smells.
Soap residue – Ammonia will break down soap scum in the bathroom. Use one tablespoon with a gallon of water.
Reviving white trainers – Use a mix of 1/2 water to ammonia to wipe down old trainers that have lost their whiteness.
Pest repellent – A 1/2 water to ammonia mix sprayed around the top, edges and sides of waste bins will help to repel rabbits, gulls, squirrels and other pests.
Insect bites and jellyfish stings – Mosquito or other insect bites can be relieved quickly by applying a small dab of household ammonia directly to the bite with a cotton bud. Vinegar or seawater is a safer alternative, particularly if you have sensitive skin.
How is ammonia exposure treated?
There is no antidote for ammonia poisoning, but most people will recover from treatment from exposure to household ammonia.
Copious amounts of water should be used immediately, to decontaminate the skin and eyes, and if ammonia is ingested, dilute it with milk or water. Seek medical assistance if unsure.